We’ve learned a lot in the past few decades about how brain connections in children with autism go awry during early development, and the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to these changes. Veteran autism researchers often quip, “We’ve come a long way from refrigerator mothers,” referring to the notorious theory from the 1950s that cold, unaffectionate mothering causes the disorder.
In France, however, much of the psychiatric establishment has not moved on.
At least, that’s the message of Sophie Robert’s documentary film, Le Mur (The Wall), which purports that four out of every five psychologists in France follow Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic method and shun biological explanations for autism. Their ignorance is shocking and almost comical, except that it’s preventing thousands of children with the disorder from accessing behavioral therapies.
Over the course of four years, Robert interviewed 30 psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in France regarding their beliefs about autism, and followed one family that has two boys with the disorder and was searching for help. One of the boys, Guillaume, showed marked improvements in speech after his parents began behavioral intervention — the very approach eschewed by analyst after analyst. Autism, the analysts insist, is the result of ”la folie maternelle,“ or maternal madness, and the best way to treat it is to remove the child from her care.
The film was released online last September, prompting outrage from the psychologists who were featured in the film, as well as their colleagues. Three sued Robert for allegedly misrepresenting their views through editing. Then last month, a court ruled in their favor, censoring the film until Robert removes their interviews and pays more than 30,000 euros in damages and fees. Robert, who denies taking the interviewees’ comments out of context and says they all signed detailed releases, is filing an appeal.
The uncut film is still available online with rough English subtitles. (See this site for a handy transcript.) But even with the poor translation, it’s easy to see why these psychologists — most of whom are in their later years — are embarrassed by the way they’re portrayed.
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